RIGA - Jazz was commonly played, not quite legally, during the Soviet-era in Latvia. Still, the country does not enjoy the same grand tradition known in Estonia and Lithuania, let alone Poland. "There are one or two pubs in Riga that play jazz," says Talis Gzibovskis, a drummer who helped found the Saulkrasti Jazz Festival, which will be put on in a town outside of Riga for the ninth year this week. The festival has helped cement a tradition for a dedicated minority of music lovers.
"We want to show the full range of music (at this festival), like a kaleidoscope," says Gzibovskis, who serves as festival director.
Gzibovskis began the festival back in 1997, intending it to be, more specifically, a drummer camp. It ended up morphing into the international festival we know and love today.
John Abercrombie, an American guitarist on the ECM label, will be the star of the festival, playing at the Saulkrasti Open-air Stage on July 28 with organist Gary Versace and drummer Adam Nussbaum.
Up until then though, Saulkrasti will see a nightly concert from musicians from Europe, America and Asia in the Minhauzena Unda recreation center.
Drummers Max Klot from Russia and Bruce Becker from the US will teach master classes, as will guitarists David Becker, from the US, and Ryo Kawasaki (Japan), bassists Gunnar Plumer (from Germany), pianist Jef Neve of Belgium and saxophonist Sebastian Studnitzky from Germany. Did you know that the saxophone was considered the most contrary to Soviet culture of all instruments?
Singers Anna Stepniewska from Poland, Janet Lawson from the US, Sandie Wallasch from Germany and Inga Berzina from Latvia will also participate.
It's moments like this that bring into question the very role jazz has to play in popular culture. In the US, jazz is now about as dangerous as Mozart or Beethoven. In Latvia and the two other Baltic states, the time when such music could upset the power elite is a lot more recent. Still, even here it has lost almost all of its subversive pleasure.
Of course, great art doesn't have to be subversive to be worthwhile. And if jazz has become the stuff of diplomatic concerts and large open international festivals, that's all really fair enough. No art form can remain dangerous forever. Even rock n' roll feels pretty wimpy. (Remember when Nixon met with Elvis, or when George W. Bush met with Ozzie Osbourneâ€¦)
Gzibovskis, a large happy man, with his own unique sense of fun, has his own view of what makes jazz particularly great.
Unlike pop music, which often has different fans depending on cultural backgrounds 's Latvian pop and Russian pop has a hard time crossing over into the opposite camps 's jazz has fewer boundaries.
"Jazz is international music," Gzibovskis says.
In other words, anyone can enjoy it.
Saulkrasti Jazz 2006
Runs until July 30
More info: www.saulkrastijazz.lv